What could be more seductive for feminists than a discourse which, like that of Michel Foucault in La Volonte de Savoir (The History of Sexuality), focuses on the complex interaction of power and sexuality?…Alluring as they may seem, however, the apparent parallels between Foucault’s work and feminism ought not to deceive us. Feminists ought to resist his seductive ploys since, as I shall argue in this essay, the price for giving in to his powerful discourse is nothing less than the depoliticisation of feminism. If we capitulate to Foucault’s analysis, we will find ourselves caught up in a sado-masochistic spiral of power and resistance which, circling endlessly in heterogeneous movement, creates a space in which it will be quite impossible to argue that women under patriarchy constitute an oppressed group, let alone develop a theory of their liberation.

(Moi 1985b:95)

Toril Moi’s damning indictment of the impact of Foucault’s work on feminism, while certainly highlighting some of the pitfalls of Foucauldian analysis, tends to ignore the fact that both feminism and Foucault are characterised by contradictions and problems. The following summary considers some of those problems as well as considering some of the advantages of feminism’s engagement with Foucault.

Nancy Fraser (1989) argues that Foucault’s work has made it possible to understand the nature and operation of power and political problems in new ways. However, she goes on to note that Foucault’s work is beset by difficulties and raises a number of philosophical questions which, she argues, it is not equipped to answer. Fraser contends that Foucault’s analysis of power lacks a normative framework, resulting in a model of power where all forms of power are seen as normatively equivalent. However, Sawicki (1991) argues that those critics who have viewed Foucault’s work as lacking any normative framework have seen it wrongly and he wanted to defamiliarise and challenge dominant discourses and discursive practices. As Sawicki notes in interpreting Foucault,

Freedom lies in our capacity to discover the historical links between certain modes of self-understanding and modes of domination, and to resist the ways in which we have already been classified and identified by dominant discourses. This means discovering new ways of understanding ourselves and one another, refusing to accept the dominant culture’s characterisations of our practices and desires, and redefining them from within resistant cultures.

(Sawicki 1991:44)

Sawicki’s analysis of Foucault highlights the fact that feminism and feminist practices have not been ‘innocent’ or free of power relationships.

Feminist theories that maintain a metanarrative of male power, argues Ramazanoglu (1993:9), fail to address the issue of women who are marginal or framed as ‘other’ in mainstream feminist discourse. Such a position ignores women who themselves hold power over other women based on class, racism, sexual orientation or domestic service. Ransom develops this point more fully in establishing feminism’s theorising of difference as the central difficulty in feminist debate today. She notes that there is a problem of developing a theory within feminism which can translate and articulate both differences and commonalities in the experiences of women (1993:125). As she comments, this has been a major area of difficulty in providing coherence within feminism.

The failure of a feminist politics based on essentialism was its advocacy of a feminist politics based on sameness and an inherent disregard for difference. Ransom argues that the possible range of differences between women are infinite, and forms of differentiation which are analytically distinct from the categories of gender, race and class ‘stake their claim to the coherence of political agency’ (1993:125). The problem with theorising difference is that it is difficult to conceptualise in a coherent way, as commonalities and differences intersect along lines of gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. Foucauldian analysis has, for many feminist pluralists, provided a framework for identifying and articulating difference and commonality. Feminism thus becomes translated into ‘feminisms’ or ‘postfeminism’ and becomes, as Ransom (1993:127) points out, one set of subversive discursive strategies amongst others, which Foucault (1980:81) identifies as ‘the insurrection of subjugated knowledges’. As Hartsock (1990) notes, these provide, according to Foucault, the only form of potentially radical knowledge or political action in the contemporary world.

The question is whether Foucault’s discursive analysis assists feminism’s need for a theory to accommodate plurality and difference. Foucault’s analysis of power and discourse has already been considered. Through his analysis of the exercise and operation of power, he attempts to show that the exercise of power cannot be reduced to a single causal factor. As Ransom (1993:128) comments, Foucault aims to subvert the basis of humanistic thought and to provide ‘a pluralistic methodology’ which can accommodate this process.

However, as Ramazanoglu (1993) notes, the conceptual deconstruction of difference is too easily removed from practical politics rooted in the nature of women’s differences and in women’s common interests. She contends that the political problem with this approach

is that it does not ‘discover’ the hidden and institutionalised power relations which differentiate the lives of black lesbian women in Britain from those of white heterosexual women or the lives of middle class housewives with ethnic roots in the Indian sub-continent from those of say service workers from the African diaspora, or the lives of such service workers from ‘black British’ professionals. Without some systematic understanding of such inter­relationships we cannot grasp the complexity, the contradictions and the unpredictability of the interplay of social differences.

(Ramazanoglu 1993:9)

Thus, if analysis is abstracted from a feminist grounding in women’s different experiences, as Ramazanoglu has noted, we are left with the problem of an undifferentiated sense of ‘women’. It is this relationship between the significance of women’s experience and the theorising of the discursive nature of subjectivity which is problematic for feminism’s relationship with Foucault. Ransom (1993:138) argues that Foucault tries to ‘resolve the tension between the social embeddedness of the subject who experiences oppression and the generation of knowledge by the historical theorist by positing a distance between the theorist and the object of study’. However, the tension between difference and commonality between women and within feminism cannot fully be resolved by the adoption of a Foucauldian method. Ransom argues that Foucauldian analysis does not offer feminism an adequate theory which addresses the ways in which women differ.

Contradictions within feminism will inevitably persist, because women’s experiences and the way in which women understand and articulate diversity is contradictory. At the same time, as Ramazanoglu (1993) notes, there are common threads in women’s experiences of gender relations and in the persistence of dominant male discourses exercising power over women, which are not adequately explained by Foucault’s analysis. Women’s experience of male power reinforces feminism’s critique of Foucault and, as Ramazanoglu (1993:22) indicates, leads feminists to suggest two aspects of power which appear to conflict with Foucault’s model of power. First, women’s experiences suggest that men do hold power and that their power constitutes a form of domination. Second, the nature of the domination cannot be understood simply as a product of discourse because, as Ramazanoglu indicates, it must be understood as ‘extra-discursive’, that is, as relating to realities outside those of discourse. Thus, for Ramazanoglu, from a Foucauldian perspective a feminist politics defined in terms of oppression and emancipation has no direct relevance. She claims that for Foucault it does make sense to establish new discourses and identify new forms of power and new forms of the self as mechanisms for transforming political relations.


Foucault’s vast range of work provides a powerful resource for feminists, particularly feminists who are interested in a feminist pluralism based around a more reflexive feminist epistemology and practice. While Foucault’s work can be seen to resonate with feminism’s search for a greater degree of pluralism in its articulation of difference and in its search for new discourses and discursive practices, there are limitations to feminism’s engagement with Foucault. Foucault’s pluralistic model of power and difference does not in itself offer a theoretical framework which can adequately distinguish between the kinds of differences that cut across women’s lives. In order to reflect fully the diversity of women’s lives and experiences, it is important to retain the capacity to identify the structural contradictions ‘in difference’. The nature of such contradictions cannot be accounted for in discursive analysis alone. As Ransom (1993:144) notes, both in terms of what women share and the cultural and structural factors which divide women, feminism requires the development of a methodology that acknowledges the presence of the speaker in what is spoken.